Aman who told gardaí at the scene of a fatal accident: “I have killed my best friend. I wish it was me” was handed a suspended prison sentence today .
Martin Ditchburn (23) admitted dangerous driving causing the death of 19-year-old Jason Killeen at Coolnafarna, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, on September 24, 2020.
Mr Killeen, of Cullatinny, Knock, Co Mayo, was a front seat passenger in a newly purchased silver Honda Accord car when Ditchburn lost control “on a sweeping left hand bend” while the pair were en route late at night to Castlerea to help a friend who needed jump leads.
Sergeant John Horkan told Castlebar Circuit Criminal Court that Ditchburn, a tiler, and his passenger were friends at the time, living together in the townland of Balinacostello, Aughamore, Ballyhaunis.
The court heard how one witness, Declan Elwood from Gortaganny, told gardaí he saw Ditchburn buying petrol at Murphy’s Filling Station in Ballyhaunis and that later Ditchburn’s car overtook him “at considerable speed”.
A short time later, Mr Elwood told officers, he came across Ditchburn’s car in the middle of the road with Mr Killeen lying on the road.
A further witness, Ciara O’Grady, told gardaí she saw a body lying in the middle of the road. The car was smoking and there was dust in the air, she said.
Ditchburn made a statement to gardaí at the scene of the accident. He was very upset stating: “I killed my best friend”, the court heard.
Sergeant Gabriel McLoughlin, a vehicle inspector, said his investigations showed the car entered the bend at a speed “considerably above the maximum speed involved”.
In a statement to gardaí following the tragedy Ditchburn said he bought the car for €1,500 after spotting it on Facebook. He had not checked the tyres when he bought it.
He said he did not remember the road conditions or the weather prior to the impact. He admitted he was “driving hard”, exceeding the speed limit.
When they came into a sharp, left-handed bend, he hit the brakes and then let the brakes off to steer through the bend.
“Then I saw a tree coming towards me. I said, “Oh f**k”. Then there was a bang. I hit the tree. I must have been knocked out then. When I came to I tried to open the driver’s door but it would not open,” he told gardaí.
Ditchburn said after running to Mr Killeen to check on him a fireman sat him down. “I was crying and roaring for Jason,” he said in his garda statement. “I am so sorry. I crashed and killed my best friend. I wish it was me.”
Victim impact statements from Mr Killeen’s mother and father, Lorraine and Patrick Killeen, and his sister, Chloe, were read to the hearing by counsel for the prosecution.
In her statement Mrs Killeen said her world had changed forever. “For 19 years I was a mother [to Jason] before he was [senselessly and brutally taken from me.”
She said cars had been her son’s passion and it was ironic a car had taken his life.
“I hope that Jason’s death will not be in vain. All we have now is a broken heart,” Mrs Killeen said.
Patrick Killeen said he and his son had been due, the day after the accident, to leave for new jobs “down south”.
Mr Diarmuid Connolly, defending, said Ditchburn’s remorse was profound and substantial.
He said Ditchburn’s life had been utterly transformed by the killing of his best friend. Ditchburn had not driven since the incident, no longer consumed intoxicants and drank only modestly, the barrister said.
Before passing sentence Judge Eoin Garavan said it was clearly a tragic event for the Killeen family on the loss of their only son.
The tragedy could have been avoided, the judge said, and this was a lesson for all young people.
Judge Garavan said no death should ever be in vain. It sent out a message to others of the enormous consequences of dangerous driving.
Clearly there was significant speed, the judge said. He referred to Sgt McLoughlin’s evidence that the bend could be negotiated at 100mph. But this was not necessarily the case due to bald tyres and weather conditions.
The judge said aggravating factors were speed which had been admitted to. Ditchburn lacked familiarity with a vehicle which was purchased the day before and was too powerful for him. Ditchburn was not necessarily aware of the condition of the tyres.
The judge said the mitigating factors were the early plea, that the defendant had a job, a family and was not at a high risk of re-offending.
Referring to the offence as being in the mid range, possibly lower, the judge gave a headline sentence of five years imprisonment, which he reduced to three years and fully suspended.
Judge Garavan imposed a driving ban of six years, suspended for three years, on Ditchburn, of Teesside Cottage, Midfield, Swinford, Co Mayo.
In his ruling, the judge took a separate drug-related offence into consideration.